By Wee Li Shyen
Diploma in Creative Writing for Television & New Media
A photo of Sun Yat Sen in his family home was the inspiration for Tjio Kayloe’s first book
(Photo of Tjio Kayloe by Wee Li Shyen)
An aged photo sparked one man’s inspiration and kicked off a five-year journey to tell the story of the founding father of the Republic of China.
Tjio Kayloe’s route to being an author was not a conventional one.
Now 71, Kayloe made his career in investment banking in Hong Kong and New York before settling down in Singapore in 1990 to start a publishing business for financial institutions. After his retirement 10 years ago, he got bored of hitting golf balls and decided to pick up a pen and pursue something that had always been at the back of his mind – writing a book.
The inspiration for the subject went back to his childhood. As a boy, he had always wondered about the portrait of a Chinese man hanging prominently beside his grandfather’s in his family home in Indonesia.
“When you’re a kid of four years old, of course you understand who your grandfather is. But what’s this other joker doing there?” Kayloe chuckled.
It was only much later that he realised that that man was Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Chinese Republic, and that his grandfather was a loyal supporter. This laid the seeds for Kayloe’s first book: The Unfinished Revolution: Sun Yat-Sen and the Struggle for Modern China.
Interestingly, Kayloe has a different perspective of Dr. Sun, who many consider a visionary hero.
“Here was a man who never succeeded in anything,” said Kayloe, “You could even say he was a total failure in life. His moment of glory lasted just two months, when he became provisional president, and he was in that seat for like a month and a half max. That was his moment of glory. The rest of his life was failure all the way until the day he died. And yet after his death, he became so revered, so well-known.”
Unlike most books on Dr. Sun, which have been written from the Chinese perspective, Kayloe’s take was on the time the revolutionary leader spent in Southeast Asia, which has not been written about much.
The book was shortlisted for the Creative Non-Fiction category of the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize.
Learning from the first attempt
Kayloe is currently working on his second book, which is about the warlords of Republican China. He is still uncertain how much beyond 1929 to include, as most accounts of the period end in 1928. But he’s confident he’ll complete this faster than his first work.
“I think my second book can be done in two years, maybe two and a half. Some might say I’ve learned the tricks of the trade,” he said.
When writing his first book, he encountered “several disasters” when files in his computer became corrupted and he had to redo the work. Fortunately he was able to recover the information through the hard copies he had kept as well as periodic backups he had made. Kayloe has now devised a system to save his files so that even if they are lost, he won’t have to start from scratch again.
Despite becoming savvier about the mechanics of the craft, Kayloe doesn’t believe he is the right person to give tips to young writers.
“I’m not in a position to give advice,” Kayloe wryly commented, “maybe by the time I write my third book.”
However, he shared that there has to be proper planning. He admits that he made the mistake of jumping into big ideas and then having to backtrack, thus taking longer to finish the work. Most importantly, “you must love your idea,” he declared, “because if you don’t enjoy it, it becomes drudgery.”